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The Man and The Machine

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2008/09/obamabw1.jpgSen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) (WDCpix)

Geraldine A. Ferraro missed the point by concentrating on Sen. Barack Obama’s race to explain his rapid rise in politics. If you want to understand Obama, think Harry S. Truman.

On the surface, they don’t seem to have much in common. Truman was old and crusty when he came on the national scene — Obama is new and fresh.

But in a way you could look at them both as a couple of machine politicians working to overcome their provincial roots as they move to the national stage.

Image has not been found. URL: http://www.washingtonindependent.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/08/politics.jpgIllustration by: Matt Mahurin

In Truman’s case, he rose to prominence thanks to his ties to Mayor Thomas J. Pendergast’s infamously corrupt political machine in Kansas City, Mo.

Obama comes from the reform wing of Mayor Richard M. Daley’s machine — which means he’s not really a reformer in the classic sense of that word at all.

It’s hard to explain Daley’s machine to people who don’t come from Chicago. It’s not like the model run by his father Mayor Richard J. Daley, who ruled the city from 1955 until 1976. The old man Daley headed the local Democratic Party and the city bureaucracy – there was no distinction. He distributed jobs and favors and contracts to acolytes in the local party, ward committeemen like himself, who sent out patronage workers to stump for Democratic candidates on Election Day.

Young Daley is not a Democratic ward committeemen – he’s barely a Democrat. In the 2004 presidential race, he made it clear that he had more of an affinity for President George W. Bush – apparently one of his pals – than Sen. John F. Kerry, the Democratic nominee.

His rule is something like a benign cult of personality. Since being elected in 1989, Daley’s taken control of all aspects of local government. His appointees control the boards governing schools, parks, public transportation and economic development.

It’s true, Chicago has a 50-member city council, but it largely acts as the mayor’s rubber stamp. If reformers dare to run against one of the mayor’s aldermanic backers, they can expect a decidedly uphill fight. They may not even make the ballot, since their nominating petitions will be challenged by the incumbent’s backers for violating one of a multitude of bizarre rules in the Byzantine rulebook governing the process. The case will eventually come before hearing officers who owe their positions to Daley allies. Even if they survive this challenge – which will cost them time and money – they can expect to be vastly outspent in the election by the incumbents, whose campaign chests overflow with contributions from developers, lawyers and contractors doing business with the city.

Daley’s control extends far beyond the ballot. Want a zoning change? Hire the right lawyer – like Daley’s younger brother, who runs one of the top zoning law firms in town. Want a handout from the city to subsidize your development deal? Hire any number of former Daley appointees who works as city council lobbyists.

Traditionally, urban reformers are supposed to be against all of this, waging the good fight for open, clean government and against injustice, corruption and waste. But in Chicago, Daley reformers look the other way while the machine holds sway.

You can’t really blame them – there’s clearly no percentage in going against Daley. In the four years between his re-election campaigns in 2003 and 2007, Daley’s administration awarded about $100 million in affirmative action contracts to the Duffs, a white family with close ties to the mayor. His top city hall patronage chief, Robert Sorich, got sentenced to four years in prison for overseeing a hiring operation in which tests and interviews were rigged so the well connected got jobs over the well qualified. His transportation and streets and sanitation departments ran the notorious Hired Truck program, in which about $40 million in contracts were awarded to truck drivers who basically did nothing but campaign for the machine on Election Day. And a seemingly endless string of lower level city workers were nailed for taking bribes, sleeping on the jobs or, in one notorious case, selling heroin on the job at a city water filtration plant.

And what did the electorate do? They re-elected Daley to a sixth term as mayor with more than 71 percent of the vote.

The standard explanation is that we Chicagoans view nepotism, graft and waste as the price we pay to Daley’s machine for plowing the snow and collecting the garbage. It’s no wonder prominent liberals like Rep. Rahm Emanual, Rep. Jan D. Schakowsky and Obama want no part of this local fight. Their attitude is if you can’t beat them – at least look the other way.

You might think the city’s black political leaders would be critical — since their communities routinely get the shaft in these deals. But the servitude of black elected officials to the machine goes back to the 1960s, when the City Council’s black aldermen were known as the “Silent Six,” for never opening their mouths to criticize the first Mayor Daley. In 1966, they even sided with that Daley over Martin Luther King Jr. when the civil-rights leader brought his open-housing campaign to town.

There was, of course, the blip on the radar in 1983, when Rep. Harold L. Washington, a champion of black political independence, defeated the machine and got elected mayor. But after Washington died in 1987, it was back to business as usual.

Obama settled in Chicago a couple of years after Washington died and this is the political universe he knows. His wife, Michelle Obama, used to work for the Daley administration. His campaign strategist, David Axelrod, ran some of Daley’s campaigns. Many of Obama’s closest advisers, like Valerie B. Jarrett, are Daley appointees and insiders — it would be hard to find big players in Chicago who aren’t. And last year, Obama mustered his oratorical powers to endorse Daley with a speech so reverential it made some of the senator’s fans cringe in embarrassment.

His local backers tell me Obama was only making a strategic choice when he backed Daley — it’s a purely political move by a guy who, in this campaign, has proved to be a remarkably sure-footed politician. It’s not that he likes the way Daley runs Chicago. It’s just that by supporting the mayor, Obama got Daley’s endorsement for his presidential run. That helps with fund-raising.

What everyone is hoping is that once in the White House, Obama, like Truman, will have the courage to stand up for what he believes. Presumably, his alliance with Daley is the price Obama paid for the right to be in a position to achieve national health care. Something even Truman couldn’t pull off.

Ben Joravsky is a staff writer for Chicago Reader newspaper, where he writes a weekly column about politics.

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